The Righteous Mind

This post is by Ann F-R, and is a series on a new and provocative book that challenges how people think — or think they think.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion explores how human morality develops and affects our daily choices and interactions. For most of the 20th century, developmental (moral) psychology was founded on rationalist assumptions: it was assumed morality & moral reasoning are constructed as children experience harm and negotiate fairness; to this end, they concluded that “reasoning about harm is the basis of moral judgment”. Any cross-cultural variations were assessed as violations of social conventions that exist between people groups. (p.19) Social conventions are “arbitrary and changeable …rules about clothing, food, [etc.]” (p.7). To a significant extent, rationalists privilege reasoning over bodily-based responses to situations. However, new discoveries by other social and medical scientists challenge rationalism.

Haidt sought to understand how people actually made daily, moral decisions, across cultures and classes; to trace how the assumptions of rationalists changed our perspective of others; and, to offer a new paradigm to help us understand ourselves, our moral decision-making, and our reactions to others who differ.

1) Richard Shweder, a psychological anthropologist, challenged rationalism with his studies in the Indian state of Orissa. Shweder observed Indians’ and Americans’ perceptions of morality correlated to their views that the individual or social group mattered more; i.e, morality was individually-centered or sociocentric (p.15). Rationalism is specifically suited to western goals concerning individuals’ rights. Shweder believed that, “When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned. If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified” (p.16).  The central question for societies is how to order themselves. From the perspective of societal order, religion itself can be understood as a human response to chaotic human interactions, because religions create & justify some form of order.

Does our understanding of God-in-Christ center us in particular ways which set Christians apart from being either individually or socially centered? If so, how?

But Haidt formulated a study with methodology that would better withstand the rationalists’ challenges than Shweder’s. His results confirmed that Americans distinguish between moral and social convention violations as others do not. Social class & levels of education determined outcome more than locale. He found “very strong support …that the moral domain goes far beyond [reasoning about] harm [and fairness]”, and cultural differences were actually bigger when perceptions of harm were controlled for (p.22).

2) And Haidt traced the roots of the western rationalist delusion (p.28) to Greek philosophy, specifically identifying Plato’s Timaeus. Plato described 2 human souls (dualism): they existed in the head (a superior, rational soul) and body (an inferior, irrational soul):

It justifies [philosophers’] perpetual employment as the high priests of reason, or as dispassionate philosopher-kings. It’s the ultimate rationalist fantasy—the passions are and ought only to be the servants of reason, to reverse Hume’s formulation [that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’ p.25]. [To illustrate] Plato’s contempt for the passions, Timaeus adds that a man who masters his emotions will live a life of reason and justice, and will be reborn into a celestial heaven of eternal happiness. A man who is mastered by his passions, however, will be reincarnated as a woman. (p.28)

Notice this: Haidt tried but couldn’t verify that moral reasoning and moral emotions acted independently. His studies revealed that people’s judgments came quickly, but their reasoning was constructed later! Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error, 1994) studied patients with brain damage affecting a specific area could perform well on moral reasoning tests, but had broken lives due to terribly poor choices. His results confirmed Haidt’s. “Damasio’s interpretation was that gut feelings and bodily reactions were necessary to think rationally, and that one job of [this area] was to integrate …feelings into…deliberations.” (p.33) Emotions and reasoning work together, but emotions precede and affect our subsequent reasoning!

Do these scientific findings affect how we view our justification of self & others?

3) Robert Margolis investigated why “people’s beliefs about political issues are often so poorly connected to objective facts” (p.41). His insights helped Haidt to “see that moral judgment is a cognitive process, as are all forms of judgment. The crucial distinction is really between two different kinds of cognition: intuition and reasoning.” Haidt developed the social intuitionist model of moral judgment, and likened automatic processes (“including emotion, intuition, and [intuitive thinking]”, p. 45) to a large, smart elephant. The controlled processes are the rider on the elephant (including post hoc justification & intellectual processes). The strongest influence over our moral judgments is located in the predispositions of our automatic processes (the elephant). The rider may independently influence the elephant, but it’s more likely that positive social interactions will alter the elephant’s predisposition and the rider’s thoughts. The rider (reasoning) acts more as a lawyer does than as a truth-seeker. “[This model] offers an explanation of why moral and political arguments are so frustrating: because moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog… Moral reasoning is part of our lifelong struggle to win friends and influence people. …intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” (pp. 47, 49)

Do these insights cause us to reassess the effects of good/poor relationships, political and social biases, and innate gender & race differences?

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  • Ray Ingles

    “Man is not a rational animal. He is a rationalizing animal.” – Robert Heinlen

  • RJS

    Ray – not Heinlen, at least not first.

    Benjamin Franklin predates him, and it is a quote from his autobiography relating to a story where he was on a ship and the crew caught a number of fish. He was vegetarian, but decided he could eat fish as the fish ate other fish.

    Perhaps Franklin borrowed the phrase as well. This is one of my favorite quotes from Franklin’s autobiography.

  • John Inglis

    The research certainly reinforces why we need to be reshaped by Christ into a certain kind of person. From the heart to the mouth is truer than ever. When we are filled with the Spirit and have transformed minds, then our reactions and intuitions are more Christlike off the off and we can then use reasoning to integrate our Christlike reactions into our theology.

  • Ann F-R

    Ray & RJS, thanks for that quote! I hadn’t encountered it, before. (I wonder if that’s due to the fact it cuts too close to the truth? :) )

  • DRT

    John I.#46, I hear you. I agree with you. I think my #47 is in the same sphere.

    I don’t disrespect individuals for beliefs (at least I try to make sure that I don’t). But I do want to confront establishment causes that I find counterproductive.

    The acquaintance that stood in my kitchen and said “I can’t believe in evolution because I can’t stand the thought that we came from animals” never heard me doubt or refute his view. That view is fine.

  • DRT

    Sorry, wrong thread for that last post. I will post on the other.

  • Tom F.

    Ann, I want to interact with your questions, but they are a bit broad. At least for me.

    I guess in general this suggest that moral transformation does not necessarily come directly through rational thought processes. Instead, as the “rider” on the “elephant”, we need to direct our elephant to contexts and relationships that will help the elephant arrive at the right responses. In other words, we don’t directly control the elephant’s responses, but we make decisions about who we will relate to in order to make it more likely that these responses are good ones.

    It may be possible to read the slavery to sin/servant of Christ motif along these lines. What is important is less our reasoning abilities or knowledge about what is right and wrong, and instead who we are basically related to. Our relationship with God (which has both individual and communal elements) provides the “elephant” with the freedom to make the right choices.

  • Ann F-R

    Thank you for the feedback, Tom. Let me see if I can focus this better. Haidt’s work seems to undermine our educated and educational assumptions that our thoughts are “pure”, or more along the lines of his language, purely rational. What I was trying to ask, in the first question, was whether we’re “centered” differently as Christians than the two described in this chapter.

    The psychologists examined two different “centers” – individualistic or self-centered, and sociocentric or group-centered. If we’re centered according to our individual selves’ thoughts, then we become disconnected and alienated from one another, naturally; this yields the polarization we see in so many debates, today. (e.g., the post that DRT was aiming for, “Where do we go from here?”) Yet, we also see on that post’s threads the “groupish” tendencies that Haidt will pick up on. So, if we’re centered according to our group’s consensus, this could also contribute to our pushing away inconvenient facts and reality, & even further separates our group from every other group. Note: I sincerely hope that I’m not confusing you, more!

    We’re called as Christians to “seek first the kingdom of God”, to embody God-with-us as the Holy Spirit indwells us to everyone with whom we interact. What caught my attention as I was reading Haidt’s findings was that it seems that we’re humanly trying to negotiate whom we want to be with and from whom we want to separate. Can we follow those natural tendencies and be faithful to Christ, Immanuel, and to the One God, Creator of all things?

    So, the second question I posed follows on the heels of this reality. It seems we justify both ourselves, individually, and the people we surround ourselves with justify each other, groupishly. The sticky wicket is that all the justifications we offer ourselves and one another still may falsify reality! Haidt gave the exemplar of what has been named, “the rationalist delusion”, which was a centering for academics across a number of disciplines in much of the 20th century (including my prior field of economics – where some of the fundamental rationalist assumptions were so flawed that we all experienced the financial meltdown, still ongoing). The grim reality is that we can be blinded to our personal flaws and also blinded to our group’s flawed perspectives, according to Haidt’s and others’ findings.

    I appreciate that you stated this: we need to direct our elephant to contexts and relationships that will help the elephant arrive at the right responses. In other words, we don’t directly control the elephant’s responses, but we make decisions about who we will relate to in order to make it more likely that these responses are good ones. You’re getting at the crucial point I was trying to make (even over-broadly, to my chagrin!). Somehow we have to get beyond the simply-human self-justification loop to work for the Beloved Community (MLK, Jr.) and discover what best provides for human flourishing (Miroslav Volf’s phrase). There needs to be some critique of self & group that we receive, does there not? For we who believe in God, incarnate in Christ, that faith-center should take us out of ourselves.

  • Tom F.

    Ann, thanks for the interaction.

    I wonder if this is already going on in economics: as there is wide suspicion about all economic theory at this point as being simply reducible to ideology. I was listening to NPR yesterday, and they were having a debate, and someone brought up the recommendations of a particular economic study as suggesting problems for a particular political proposal. The pundit dismissed the study as simply representing the biases of the economists towards a certain political ideology. There was not even an attempt to engage the study on the economic merits.

    On the other hand, you can also find economists occasionally doing something similar

    Krugman can’t help but wonder if “austerity” is not economically but politically motivated. (Okay, so this is a lefty doing it, but the point is everyone, right and left does it. I’m not trying to score points for a side here.) And yet Krugman does engage opponent’s arguments “on the merits”.

    It seems to me that there is a crucial difference between the two approaches: both acknowledge the pernicious role of bias and self-serving arguments, but in Krugman’s case, the link to reality is not broken, and there is at least a hope held out that further dialogue and debate about the facts of the situation might bring others around. In the case of the radio debate; further conversation was unnecessary and destined for failure, as an opponents ideology necessarily blinds them to reality.

    I like Haight’s stuff, and I think its great, but if it is used to give support to this idea of “bias as a conversation stopper”, that is a problem (and a misuse). Maybe, like Kant’s idea of living “as if” we have freedom, because otherwise morality becomes meaningless, we have to have conversation “as if” the other person is capable of being rational, because otherwise non-arbitrary laws and liberal democracy may become meaningless. Maybe we have to act “as if” all the while knowing the conversation partner is self-serving, self-justifying, and irrational at times. I think of Paul’s thoughts on hope: “Love always hopes”. Hope is perhaps the best way of thinking about it: there is simultaneously an acknowledgement that people often fails us here (and that we fail others as well), but yet an encouragement to love the other person by at least anticipating the best about someone, perhaps because that expectation is at least part of creating the reality of an open conversation partner.

    More basically: thinking that everyone is untrustworthy and self-serving means you will end up bringing out that behavior in everyone. Trust is a funny thing like that.